Heat take ECF Game 1 in Boston: Celtics can’t limit Jimmy Butler, supporting cast

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By Joe Vardon, Jay King, Steve Buckley and Jared Weiss

BOSTON — The Miami Heat are not the average eighth seed. And now they’re three wins away from becoming a historic No. 8.

The Heat beat the Boston Celtics 123-116 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday behind 35 points from Jimmy Butler and 20 points from Bam Adebayo.

Miami is trying to become the second team in NBA history and first since the 1999 New York Knicks to make the finals as an eighth seed.

“You’re getting way ahead of yourself,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when the above was pointed out to him.

Perhaps. One game does not a series make. But, again, the Heat are by no means what a typical No. 8 seed looks like.

A year ago at this time, they were the No. 1 seed, locked into what would be a close, bitter loss in seven games to these same Celtics. Butler is one of the great playoff performers in the Heat’s illustrious history, and Kyle Lowry, a past champion, now anchors Miami’s bench.

This is the third time in the last four seasons these two teams have met in the conference finals, and overall this is Miami’s 10th appearance in a conference final.

The Heat struggled through injury and lineup questions this regular season, but already knocked off No. 1 seed Milwaukee in the first round, have lost just twice so far in the postseason, and have won Game 1 of all three series.

A bottom dweller they are not.

“Everybody counting us out from the beginning builds that chip (on our shoulder),” Adebayo said. “Now I feel like we are one of the best teams in the league because adversity built us.”

Game 2 is at 8:30 p.m. ET Friday at Boston’s TD Garden.

Butler was 12-of-25 shooting with seven assists, five boards, and six steals. This was his 17th playoff game with at least 30 points since joining the Heat four seasons ago, and his 11th consecutive playoff game with at least 25 points. Butler is the fifth player in NBA history with multiple career 30-point, five-rebound, five-assists, five-steal playoff games. He joined Michael Jordan (8), Allen Iverson (3), Russell Westbrook (3) and Rick Barry (2).

Adebayo is playing a much different role in this series compared to the 2022 conference finals. The offense runs through him as the center, and he contributed five assists to go with his eight boards. Adebayo tied LeBron James for the most consecutive playoff games in franchise history with at least eight rebounds (10).

Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and Lowry all scored 15 points apiece for Miami.

The Celtics, who advanced to this stage by beating the 76ers in a Game 7 on Sunday, led 66-57 at halftime and were outscoring the Heat 40-16 in the paint. They coughed up 46 points to Miami in the third quarter.

“I thought the first half was good, and I thought we just let go of the rope in the third quarter, lost that sense of urgency,” Boston coach Joe Mazzulla said. “We were prepared, and then we let go of the rope. … We have to be prepared for when we do outplay them that they’re going to respond and we have to respond.”

Jayson Tatum, coming off of arguably the best Game 7 in NBA history, led the Celtics with 30 points on 9-of-17 shooting. Jaylen Brown added 22 points and Malcolm Brogdon added 19 off the bench.

Among the anomalies for the Heat this season compared to last was 3-point shooting. The top 3-point shooting team in the league in 2022, Miami regressed dramatically in that category during the regular season. The Heat have found their stroke, and in Game 1 shot 16-of-31 from deep.

The Celtics, who were second in the NBA with 43 3-point attempts per game, were 10-of-29 from beyond the arc — which was where this game was decided.

“It felt like they had a ton of them in the first half,” Spoelstra said. “I felt like they had more, but we know that’s a big part of what they do. We are trying to take some of those away, but it’s tough.”


The dagger 🗡️ 🔥

🎥 @NBAonTNT pic.twitter.com/pkUKqHlLqF

— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) May 18, 2023

The Athletic’s instant analysis:

Celtics unable to stop Butler, supporting cast

After a long series with the slow-paced 76ers, the Celtics did not adjust well to Miami’s quicker attacks. Even in the first half, which Boston ended with a nine-point lead, Lowry punished the Celtics early in the shot clock several times. Philadelphia often favored isolation. The Heat did some of that in Game 1, but without any of the stagnation. They scored efficiently throughout the first half, then hit Boston with a 46-25 third-quarter haymaker.

The Celtics didn’t take anything away. They allowed 54.1-percent shooting from the field, including 51.6-percent 3-point shooting. Butler scored 35 points on 12-for-25 shooting and the Celtics weren’t able to limit his supporting cast either. They had chances late but squandered those. — King

Third quarter deflates TD Garden

Brown delivered some tsk-tsking to Celtics fans going into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, saying they needed to bring more energy. Which they did. But the third quarter of tonight’s game (and Tatum turnovers at the end) shows why the fans can lose that energy: there’s always that fear the Celtics are going to do something horribly wrong, and not just for a play or two. — Buckley

The Celtics had the worst quarter imaginable and somehow still found themselves in striking distance late in this game. Then Tatum threw it away. Then Tatum left his feet and balked at shooting it before coming back down. Boston was close, but would step on its own shoelaces when it had a chance to turn things around. The Celtics would use just enough physicality on Butler to keep him from tearing them apart. — Weiss

Can Boston bounce back?

Boston has the talent to win the series, but the Heat showed the difference between a team that wins three quarters and a squad that plays 48 minutes. Miami gives up cross matches all the time, but the Heat played connected the entirety of the game and Miami’s stars have a persistence that is unmatched. The Celtics’ best players just looked a bit unsure at times, which coincided with a complete letdown in defensive focus and pressure in the third quarter.

The NBA is designed to punish teams who can’t keep up the pace on defense, but the Heat are built to destroy them. Now the most audacious eighth seed we’ve seen is leading the conference finals. — Weiss

Required reading

  • Celtics-Heat series preview: Stopping Jimmy Butler, Joe Mazzulla’s lineup and more
  • How Joe Mazzulla helped Celtics keep perspective and season alive in clutch Game 7

(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images) 

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